#92) The Producers (1967)

producers

#92) The Producers (1967)

OR “Hitler on Ice”

Directed & Written by Mel Brooks

Class of 1996

The Plot: Washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is struck by inspiration when visited by nebbish accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder); he could make more money producing an expensive flop than a cheap hit. After persuading Leo to join him, Max finds “Springtime for Hitler”, an awful and offensive musical by ex-Nazi Franz Leibkind (Kenneth Mars). With the enlisted help of flamboyant director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), beatnik actor Lorenzo St. DuBois (Dick Shawn), Swedish secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith) and a devoted group of little old ladies, what could possibly go right?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “an entertaining ride” and commends Brooks for “temper[ing] the over-the-top gags and stereotypical characters with a touch of sweetness”. An essay by Gene Wilder biographer Brian Scott Mednick is an overview of the film’s production that focuses, not surprisingly, on Gene Wilder.

But Does It Really?: Full disclosure: I am a longtime Mel Brooks fan, so this one’s a no-brainer for me. Watching it again, I was amazed just how hard I still laughed at everything. Mostel and Wilder are perfectly cast against each other, and Mel’s script – while not as jaw-droppingly controversial as it was in 1967 – is a solid foundation from which everything is built. It loses a bit of steam towards the end, but “The Producers” is a landmark in film comedy and led the way for the zany masterwork of Mel Brooks.

Shout Outs: A brief mention of “The Wizard of Oz” from Roger De Bris.

Everybody Gets One: Despite Mel’s eventual stock company of actors in later films, this is the only Registry appearance (and only collaboration with Mel) for stars Zero Mostel, Dick Shawn, Lee Meredith and Christopher “Mr. Belvedere” Hewett. Also be on the lookout for Barney Martin (aka Jerry Seinfeld’s Dad) and Renee Taylor (aka Fran Drescher’s Mom) in the “Springtime for Hitler” book scenes.

Wow, That’s Dated: This round of “What’s Playing on Broadway Back Now?” features the short-lived musicals “Hallelujah, Baby!” and “Henry, Sweet Henry”, which puts the film somewhere in fall 1967. Also someone definitely had to explain to me what a Karmann Ghia was. But nothing is more 1967 in this film than Dick Shawn’s performance as flower child Lorenzo St. DuBois (“And what have you done, LSD?”).

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Producers” survived a studio shelving and a critical skewering, but in the end the right people “got it” and Mel managed to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It would be the only Oscar for any of Mel’s films. Newcomer Gene Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (despite having as much screen time as Zero Mostel), and lost to Jack Albertson’s more sentimental turn in “The Subject Was Roses”. Wilder would take this out on Albertson three years later.

Other notes

  • Zero Mostel’s real first name is Samuel. He was told that if he didn’t do better in school he’d be a zero. As someone once wrote, children will listen.
  • Wait, this movie said “It’s only a flesh wound” first?
  • I love this movie, but god the opening credits go on forever.
  • The first 20 minutes (essentially just Zero and Gene Wilder) are about as perfect as film comedy gets. Proof that sometimes all you need is the right script with the right actors.
  • When I went to New York for the first time, I made sure to visit the fountain in front of Lincoln Center. Thanks to this film, it’s as iconic as the Statue of Liberty.
  • Kudos to Casting Director (and former Mel Brooks assistant) Alfa-Betty Olsen. This film is populated with some of my favorite bit players in any film, among them Shimen Ruskin as Bialystock’s landlord and Madelyn Cates as the conci-urge.
  • On a less fun note, this film’s jokes on gay stereotypes have aged the poorest.
  • Why does Lorenzo’s band have a saxophone that sounds like a flute on the soundtrack?
  • How do you think “Springtime for Hitler” did at that year’s Tony Awards? I mean, the 67-68 season was known for heralding the end of Broadway’s Golden Age, so “Springtime” could’ve managed a win or two.
  • My favorite line; “You are the audience. I am the author. I outrank you!”
  • Does anyone else notice that LSD completely vanishes from the film after opening night? Same goes for Carmen, with Roger not too far behind.
  • Oh how I wish the song “Springtime for Hitler” had gotten a Best Song nomination at the Oscars. Can you imagine the hoops Mel would’ve had to jump through just to get it on the air?

Legacy

  • Mel referenced “The Producers” in almost all of his subsequent films.
  • The film finally made it to Broadway in 2001 with a stage musical that, while never beating the original for its perfect timing, is a delightful old-fashioned book musical.
  • The “Producers” musical got its own film version in 2005. It…is a film version of the musical and falls flat on almost every level.
  • U2’s Achtung Baby
  • The entire fourth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” involved Larry playing Max in the aforementioned musical version of “The Producers”. Mel and his wife Anne Bancroft cameoed in the finale with their own little “Producers” twist.

Further Viewing: A expertly researched and impeccably pointed video essay by Lindsay Ellis (who has really blossomed since breaking out of the “Nostalgia Chick” mold) focuses on “The Producers”, its specific kind of satire, and why it’s okay for Mel Brooks (and not you) to make fun of Hitler.

Listen to This: Before he was a legendary filmmaker, Mel Brooks was 2000 years old. Based on a bit Brooks and Carl Reiner did to entertain each other while writing “Your Show of Shows”, “2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks” was the surprise comedy album hit of 1961, earning the two a Grammy and eventually a place in the National Recording Registry.

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